Quiet Sleep and A Sweet Dream

Dream (3)Throughout her adult life, Mom experienced a recurring dream that was poignantly revealing. In the dream she roamed the halls of a school, unable to find her locker or her classroom. She was always lost, always searching, never finding. One hardly needs to consult a dream interpreter to understand the obvious meaning behind her unresolved quest. To think that she was perpetually adrift, unable to find her heart’s desire, was reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Toward the end of her life, Mom also suffered from vivid nightmares. Many times I would hear her during the night or during an afternoon nap fighting against someone or something that posed a threat. She could rarely recount the experiences when I woke her, but judging by the flailing and yelling, the danger must have seemed very real. Sometimes she was so enmeshed in these dreams that it was difficult to break the spell. When gently touching her shoulder or softly calling out “Mom” didn’t work, I resorted to shouting her name, “Joy!”

One day just before she was admitted to the home hospice program, she was able to recall a particularly powerful vision. It began harmlessly but ended in disturbing cries that drew me to her bedside. Her story is still clear in my mind.

I was with a bunch of other people by the water. I’m not sure whether it was the ocean or a lake, but there was a pier. I’m pretty sure the people around me were my brothers and sisters. Sam (her late husband, my father) was in the water and he wanted me to get in. He kept laughing and trying to coax me, but I didn’t want to go. Finally, he grabbed me and pulled me in. Everyone was laughing, but I was really mad.

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As with her recurring dream, this one did not require hours of thoughtful analysis. She simply was not ready for the end of this life … or on the flip side … the beginning of a new one. The hospice social worker she shared the story with concurred without hesitation. I was quietly concerned because I knew Mom did not have much time left to prepare. The ethereal boat was going to leave the pier with her aboard regardless of whether she wanted to go. I shuddered to think that she might die flailing and shouting – figuratively if not literally – as though she were in the middle of another bad dream.

The day inevitably came, of course, when she traded her hospital bed for a seat on that ghostly vessel bound for the Other Side. By that time, though, I was no longer worried that she wasn’t ready. Long after she stopped talking to us, my sister and I heard her pose two important questions to no one that we could see. I was alone with Mom for the first question. My sister was alone with her for the second.

Where are we? Where are we going?

Although she displayed some typical signs of near-death anxiety in the days leading up to her departure, Mom was entirely calm and peaceful when she asked these two questions. Her eyes were closed to the mortal world. There was no trepidation in her voice whatsoever.

I can’t think of anything she could have said in her last hours that would have given me more comfort. The answers would be interesting, but the questions are solace enough. Evidently, she went somewhere with someone.

Dream (6)The idea that our loved ones depart on a journey of mystical proportions is not without basis. Religious beliefs aside, it is a fact that the dying use travel as a way of expressing their impending departure without even realizing it. In their 1992 book Final Gifts, hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley documented multiple examples of patients who exhibited near-death awareness in this way. Mom could have been one of their case studies. Out of the blue, about three months before she died, she told me that one day I would come home from work and she would be gone – out the front door, walking and carrying everything she needed in a small bag. I thought she was joking as she so often did, but her voice was somehow different. Faraway. When I questioned her scenario, she was indignant. I let it go, and we didn’t talk about it again.

Today, with about 17 months of bereavement under my belt, I still miss my mother terribly. However, I don’t worry about where she is. I don’t picture her splashing around with my father in a lake or the sea near a pier, nor do I imagine her walking down the sidewalk of our neighborhood with a hobo sack slung over her shoulder. I don’t think of her futilely roaming the halls of a school because I think that, in the end, she finally located the elusive door of her locker or classroom and found paradise inside. No, I have embraced another vision – one that she shared with me on a sunny morning after she awoke from a quiet sleep accompanied by a sweet dream.

I was riding a motorcycle down a winding road with tall trees on both sides. It was getting dark and all I could see clearly was the headlight of the motorcycle on the road as I went around the curves. I don’t know where I was going, but I could feel the wind in my face and I felt free.

Dream (1)That is how I like to think of Mom – on an endless sojourn with no particular destination. I can imagine her long, dark hair blowing in the wind and a beautiful smile on her youthful face. She leans right into one curve, straightens out her bike, and leans left into the next turn. She is free.

And maybe freedom is the real point after all. Not where you are going or how you get there.

When our family gathered to scatter Mom’s ashes at her beloved Oregon Coast, we took some time to play and sing the songs she had requested – Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan, Tender Years by John Cafferty, Around and Around by John Denver, Always by Irving Berlin. I read a little poem she wrote when she was a child about wanting to be a cowboy. We wrapped the tribute up with a piece by the late British poet laureate John Masefield; a poem Mom had loved since she was old enough to read and appreciate classic prose. I could never deliver it in the resounding, dramatic way she always did, but it was the perfect farewell nevertheless.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife. And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

On this Mother’s Day 2015, my long trick writing Notes From My Mother has come to a natural end. I have shared all of the posthumous notes Mom left me and have posted some additional stories that fit in nicely with the theme. As of today, I am going to suspend my weekly entries in order to follow my maternal muse down a different path of remembrance. If you look back at my October 2014 column titled “Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake,” you’ll get a clue about what is to come. I expect to check in periodically while my sister and I work our way through this other exciting project. For now, I thank you for reading these stories about my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. And I wish you all – wherever you are – quiet sleep and a sweet dream.

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To The Pretty One

My mother signed off on the 19-year-old farewell letter that was the subject of last week’s installment by pairing two of our most often repeated and beloved axioms.

 All my love always to “the pretty one” from “the only one.”

For first-time visitors to this webpage and as a refresher for repeat readers, the words set inside quotation marks are coded messages.  Essentially, they are my family’s encrypted versions of “I love you.”  Like any good catch phrase, there are stories behind these two.  This week I’ll tell you about “the pretty one.”

“The pretty one” is rooted in a tiny little comment I once made to a friendly stranger.  While our family was vacationing in Palm Springs in the late 1950s, someone sitting poolside admired my sister, Leslie, for her intelligence.  As any jealous, bratty little sister might do, I interrupted to sing my own praises.  “And I’m the pretty one,” I said smugly.

That vainly precocious remark drew immediate laughter and a lifetime of teasing.  I know when my mother or other family members have repeated it, they have done so with fond amusement.  The sad thing is that, deep down, I actually believed it for years.  My dark-haired, slightly plump sister was the smart one.  I was the pretty one with blond hair and a slim build.

My sister held me up from the beginning, as seen in this 1954 photo for a 1955 calendar.

My sister held me up from the beginning, as seen in this 1954 photo for a 1955 calendar.

In reality, Leslie and I are both smart, but for the record, she is far prettier than I ever was.  I came to this belated conclusion several years ago while browsing through family snapshots and portraits.  It isn’t because recent images document that I am no longer blond and slim, and she now wears clothes that are smaller than mine.  It isn’t because she won a baby pageant long before I arrived.  It’s because in every photo of my sister, her genuine inner beauty shines through on her kind face.  She has a pureness about her that is rare.

Our paternal grandmother used to say, with a slight Texan accent, “Don’t be ugly.”  She meant, “Don’t be mean.”  Well, my sister could never be “ugly” if she tried … on the inside or the outside.  To finally, fully understand this beautiful truth, and to profoundly appreciate her presence in my life, is as powerful as it is humbling.

As noted in last week’s installment, Leslie was the daughter who was seemingly destined to take care of our mother in her last years.  Destiny laughed in our faces, but she was always just a telephone call away.  Whenever I was frustrated, tired, confused, scared, feeling sorry for myself, or otherwise in dismay about the sometimes leaden weight on my shoulders, normally all I had to do was talk to her to regain balance.  When that didn’t quite do the trick, she was knocking on my door within 24 to 48 hours.

Over the years, she sacrificed hundreds of hours of sick leave and vacation time to travel from Oregon to Nevada and camp out in our guest room for a few days, a week or longer so I could have an occasional break.  She took charge the moment she walked inside; determined to minister to every adult, child, dog or cat within her loving reach.  I practically melted into her arms with each hello and, of course, Mom was always overjoyed to see her O.D.D. (Older Darling Daughter).

Together the two of them would check things off the “honey do” list Mom assembled between visits.  Whether it was a special shopping trip, adding information to the family tree books or whipping up a mouth-watering new recipe from a magazine, they accomplished things that I typically did not have the time or energy to tackle.  I often told Mom, with a good-natured chuckle, that I felt like the proverbial custodial parent because the non-custodial parent racks up points for doing the fun stuff.

Christmas 1960 -- Still holding me.

Christmas 1960 — Still holding me.

Yes, the three of us made an unbeatable team.  We were blessed with support from other family and friends, and I will mention them as this story unfolds from week to week, but today is all about my sister’s unselfish devotion to Mom and to me.  My ardent prayer is that every primary caregiver everywhere has someone like her on their side.  She was there through the good and the bad, until the end.

There are certain pivotal moments in our lives that we can never forget.  Willingly or unwillingly, we relive them as if they happened yesterday.  For me, one of those moments was Mom’s final breath.  The funny thing is, I didn’t actually see it.  I knew Mom’s breathing had become more ragged that icy December morning as she lay immobile in her hospice bed.  Regardless, it took me by surprise when she suddenly drew a deep, shuddering breath, exhaled loudly and then was utterly still.  Hastily, I beckoned Leslie into the bedroom.  Neither of us moved a muscle or breathed ourselves until Mom’s breathing suddenly resumed.  I stepped into the hallway and turned on my cell phone to anxiously try to call our brother back from an errand.  It was in that instant Leslie ended up being the one sitting at our mother’s bedside when she finally did take her last, trembling breath.

No one would blame me if I said I felt guilty, cheated or disappointed that, after caring for Mom so many years, I should miss those last few seconds.  On the contrary, I find it poetic that Mom’s firstborn was alone with her.  The pure, unrehearsed beauty in it breaks my heart.

The family gathered at the Oregon Coast six months later to share memories, sing songs, and set Mom free at one of her favorite spots.  At dusk, I realized I had forgotten to scatter the pale pink petals I had collected from Mom’s Nevada rosebush.  Leslie and I drove alone to the seashore, walked barefoot out to the waves, and gently let the water and wind carry the petals away.  I stepped back a ways and, without her noticing, took several of the most precious photographs one could hope for on such a solemn day.  They capture my pretty sister in the fading light saying good-bye to our sweet mother on a serene beach with a company of seagulls on patrol.

If you haven’t already come to this conclusion, the title of today’s installment is not just a reference to my mother’s coded message at the end of her farewell letter.  It is my heartfelt dedication of this essay to my sister … our mother’s Older Darling Daughter … and my hero.

“To The Pretty One.”

Leslie 2014

Leslie 2014